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Forum for the Future:
Building Collaboration at the Intersection of Vision and Action

CEO Dr. Sally Uren has a realistic understanding of collaborations and shares how combining forces is the way forward.

The biggest challenge to collaboration today is the difference between the willingness to sit in a room to talk, and actually changing things, says Dr. Sally Uren, CEO of international sustainability nonprofit Forum for the Future. Her work with global corporations brings decision-makers into the room to focus on, first and foremost, 'what is the problem we’re trying to solve?’

To pinpoint that, Uren and her team navigate agendas, contradicting positions and bottom lines by building a space where leaders can share assumptions and views without judgement. She understands that there is never holistic harmony and the process is not perfect, but her focus on the common objective steers collaborations to success.

On where to begin

Recognizing that the problem you are solving for is bigger than any one organization is the first step, Uren says: “More organizations recognize that they need to tackle systemic barriers. Supply chains, consumerism — these are too big for one corporation to do alone. Realizing there is a great benefit from differing parts of the system coming together is key. And including civil society, NGOs and government in that collaboration is required, as well.”

Establishing boundaries and clear rules of engagement set the tone for those stakeholders coming together; Forum for the Future has spent years crafting ecosystems in which to do that. From there, crafting the shared vision is possible, though individual inputs may vary widely. To that point, Uren believes that those varying perspectives — pitched in the secure and focused environment created by the collaboration — are quite integral to binding the participants in the shared vision and purpose.

On motivating the stakeholders

Understanding that the current business model isn’t working is a given. Provoking proactive engagement is part of Forum for the Future’s work, and balancing that against consumer behaviors and existing corporate thinking takes optimism and persuasion. But Uren says she finds the most success in motivating collaborations when the conversations are honest, with clear boundaries, and highlighting the absolute necessity of each individual organization involved.

Staying away from the weeds of specific business models, Uren and her team are careful to protect each brand, especially when competitors enter into collaborations. Their method is to enable a safe space where values creation is prominent and the big picture is discussed, with the ‘how’ to be worked out by each participant in private. This is especially important to Uren as she is highly sensitive to the restrictions of anti-competition law, a driving factor in the way she navigates motivating high-impact collaborators. The largest motivator, however, is recognizing individual roles. Uren’s team takes the time to bring key brands and individuals to the table by understanding and calling out the specific role, position, influence and power each participant holds.

“It’s about recognizing that each member has a specific set of skills and particular leverage necessary to change the system,” she says.

On navigating the tension

Focusing on long-term goals with short-term pressures is key to making scenarios relevant. It’s quite easy to have a vision of the future, but Forum’s collaborations take that vision and play it out in various ways, not just the most appealing to the stakeholders.

“This can become really uncomfortable, because there is no guarantee for sustainability,” Uren says. “So, when we are creating the vision, painting the picture for tomorrow, we do so in many different ways. With these scenarios, you can pontificate and we reduce the tensions within these collaborations by building in quick wins. The wins create momentum, and the shared vision they are part of keeps the focus on the larger goals.”

When the larger goals involve a shift from traditional production methods, often eliminating or altering a participant’s existing process and position, Uren points out it’s key to talk in terms of transition: “A managed transition can build and diversify and sustain the future goals.”

On the plateaus and challenges of high-level discussions

The engagement of CEOs and change-making stakeholders is sometimes a double-edged sword for Uren’s team and their process. Many participants have multiple problems they’d like to tackle with the group. But actually solving for multiple problems never works, so Forum focuses all the ideas into three or four main issues to solve for. Defining interconnections along the supply chain, three things that can create catalytic change and what success looks like steer the conversations out of rabbit holes and onto a path where tactics and strategy can become tangible.

Forum’s process keeps these collaborations away from nested problems that can derail the purpose, by perpetually circling back to the reason for the collaboration in the first place: the interconnections along the supply chain requiring the system to work together to affect change.

“There are loads of shifts to use as reference points: IBM was a personal PC, now selling tech; Kodak completely transformed — and that’s when you see the moment of enlightened self-interest click,” Uren points out. “The participants see that, ‘In the interest of my organization and the system around me, I need to participate or I’ll be pushed out.’ It’s about the role you play together, and how brands can use power positions within the system to deliver more sustainable products that work commercially.”

On consumer demand for sustainable products

“Consumers are the red herring in the conversation,” Uren says. “It’s all too easy to say they are unwilling [to change and purchase sustainable alternative products] — but that is not the right question, and it is the wrong argument that ‘people won’t pay.’”

She notes that no one really asked Apple to make smartphones or other technology, but Steve Jobs had a vision of tech making life easier; he had the imagination and the consumer benefited from that. To her, these collaborations are the same thing; she sees that a lack of business imagination can be counteracted with these collaborations and they are the path forward for more consumer benefit. She believes and sees in practice that collaboration creates the way in which industries shift and this enables ecosystems that thrive on sustainable, purpose driven methods. It is this intersection of vision and action that inspires Uren, and creates the purpose fueled space for system changes.

To learn more about the successes of Forum for the Future’s global collaborations — including Protein Challenge 2040, Tea 2030 and the new Edible Fats and Oils Collaboration — please check out their site.